Overcoming My Fear of Frying
By Dara O’Brien
Creative Director, Lake Isle Press
When you’re tackling a recipe for the first time, it helps to know something about the cooking techniques you’ll be called upon to use. This became particularly evident to me when I took on fried chicken.
I readily admit to a fear of frying. This is unlike my other food issues, such as why I won’t eat fruit pie or my aversion to smoked salmon. I avoid frying because it’s messy, and all of that hot oil makes me nervous. And even if you reuse the oil, eventually you have to dispose of it, and it just seems like a lot of hassle. But I really love fried chicken and have long thought it would be a special treat to make it.
Pierre Thiam’s recipe for Spicy Kelewele Fried Chicken in his book “Senegal” from Lake Isle Press inspired me to move past my fear and get to frying. I was especially drawn in by that word “spicy.” The recipe is inspired by the West African street food Kelewele — fried seasoned plantains.
I thought fried chicken was supposed to soak in buttermilk or some wet brine, but this recipe uses a dry rub of spices mixed with flour (which I learned could be called a dry brine, so there’s a new fact for me). That was the extent of my forethought, and it’s where my ignorance came in. There was so very much I didn’t know about deep-frying, and I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
For example, I figured that it would be good to have, let’s call it a robust coating of flour on the chicken. Pierre’s recipe advises you to shake off the excess flour, which I did, but I didn’t understand how important that step is. I lost a lot of flour in the oil, which turned black by the time I was done with three batches, and I had to throw the used oil out.
The chicken was moist and tasty, but not as spicy as I hoped. I decided to try it again, to see if by correcting some mistakes I could ramp up the flavor.
Mistakes, for example, like using ten-year-old onion powder. I replaced it with a fresh bottle before frying Round Two. I also went online and bought peanut flour and peanut oil, which are both listed in the recipe. Since I couldn’t find either in my local grocery the first time around, I had subbed in coconut flour and canola oil. I wanted to see if there would be a difference.
The other change I wanted to make was to omit the second coating of all-purpose flour that the recipe calls for. I followed that step the first time, and I wondered if that contributed to my flourpalooza. I checked with Pierre, and he said it would be okay to eliminate it, so I did.
Fried Chicken Round Two was more golden, and the crust was spicier. Definitely a kick to it; a big improvement. It may be that, in addition to the benefit of using fresh spices, the peanut flour is better able to hold the flavors and stand up to the high heat. The oil didn’t turn as black this time, but it still changed color substantially and had a lot of flour residue in it, so I ditched it again. I’ll do better next time.
And I do plan on there being a next time because fried chicken is such a treat. But, oh, that oil and spatter. What’s a cook to do? Back to my friend Google.
Pierre’s recipe, along with many other sources, recommended using a 12-inch cast iron pan for frying chicken. It’s what I used for both rounds and each was Spatter City. I came across several sites that advocate for using a dutch oven, and to keep the chicken covered while frying. Sounds like a plan to me.
I also need to invest in a second thermometer before Round Three. I had to remove the one I was using to monitor the oil temperature and clean it and cool it in order to test the chicken for doneness. Then, of course, I couldn’t be sure I was maintaining the proper oil temperature, which is important if you want your chicken to be crispy, or keep it from burning or becoming greasy.
I also want to make another investment, and start with top quality chicken. All this thinking about how to do best by this recipe made me start wondering about how I select the primary ingredient. Next time I’ll buy from the butcher instead of the grocer, and see if there’s a difference.
For some of the folks I might invite to my home for dinner, fried chicken would be a no. Vegetarians and vegans, for example. The health-conscious. People with arteries. But there are some, like me, who eat fried chicken on rare occasions. And when we do, we want it to taste great. It’s not a good-for-you food so we don’t want to waste the indulgence.
I had a memorable fried chicken dinner at my friend Chris’s place last year. It stood out, not just because he knows how to make any occasion feel like a unique moment in time, although he does. It was because fried chicken, this deceptively simple dish, is comforting, satisfying, and authentic — and you know that the person who made it for you went to a bit of trouble. Reason enough for me to keep making it. I’m ready for Round Three.
Spicy Kelewele Fried Chicken
1 cup peanut flour
2 tablespoons fine sea salt
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 free-range chicken, cut into 8 pieces
2 cups all-purpose flour
Peanut oil, for frying
Fried plantains or mashed sweet potatoes, for serving
Sauteed greens, for serving
1. In a large bowl, combine the peanut flour, salt, ginger, onion powder, garlic powder, cayenne, and black pepper. Add the chicken and mix well. Cover with plastic wrap and marinate in the refrigerator overnight.
2. Line a baking sheet or platter with several layers of paper towels. Pour the oil into a large cast-iron skillet or another heavy, straight-sided pan to a depth of 1 inch, and heat to 350°F over medium-high heat.
3. Working in batches, dredge the chicken pieces in the flour. Lightly tap the pieces to shake off the excess flour and carefully place in the hot oil. Fry the pieces for 10 to 15 minutes, turning once, until deep golden brown on all sides and cooked through. Keep the oil temperature around 325°F, adjusting the heat if too hot or cool.
4. Remove with a slotted spoon or tongs and drain on the paper towels. Serve with fried plantains or mashed sweet potatoes and sautéed greens.
Recipe reprinted from “Senegal” by Pierre Thiam, Lake Isle Press, 2015
Originally published at https://www.lakeislepress.com on August 27, 2020.